Sunday, January 21, 2007

Crazy response

Duke fans’ abuse has helped Hornbuckle

KNOXVILLE — It’s not easy to embarrass Alexis Hornbuckle.

The University of Tennessee’s spunky and talkative guard will match wits and words with anyone on the basketball court.

But one group of people she had no answer for: the "Cameron Crazies."

Duke University’s student section gained its fame for men’s games, but the Crazies made a special appearance at the women’s game last Jan. 23 for the arrival of then No. 1 and undefeated Tennessee. Duke, which won that game 75-53, is No. 1 as it visits No. 4 Tennessee on Monday.

The Cameron Crazies did their homework about Hornbuckle, dredging up a Wal-Mart shoplifting arrest from her past and throwing it in her face. For about two hours.

They held up plastic bags and chanted "Wal-Mart" at her until late in the game, when they switched to "Overrated" with Duke’s blowout victory assured.

"I was very upset after that game," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "To me there is no place for it, but you can’t control how fans and students react. I think I was the angriest person in that gym."

Hornbuckle felt the effects and finished what she called "the worst game I can remember" with six turnovers. She scored 10 points but missed all four free throws, when the chants were especially noticeable.

She was just another loser in the mind games of the Cameron Crazies, who are legendary for not pulling punches about players’ troubled pasts.

"I was not prepared for the type of hostility that was thrown at me and our team," Hornbuckle said. "You can’t simulate something like that."

It was the low point of Hornbuckle’s career, and she decided it would stay that way. Thinking about Duke during the summer and through weight training and post-practice shootarounds, she worked so she wouldn’t get mentally beaten again.

"I think it has helped me grow," Hornbuckle said. "Sometimes you have to go through that fire in order to come out the other side as a stronger player and person."

Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena she gets to show a national television audience how much stronger she is.

Hornbuckle’s teammates and coaches have already seen the maturation process. Almost unanimously they call her the catalyst for Tennessee’s improving defense, and they consistently laud her hustle and work ethic.

"She’s just a great leader for this team on so many levels, it’s hard to really put it in one area," senior Sidney Spencer said. "Even when things aren’t going right, she doesn’t let it get to her anymore."

In a 70-57 loss at North Carolina, the Lady Vols’ only defeat this season, they struggled in a hostile environment. But Hornbuckle never hung her head and never displayed frustration to a raucous Tar Heels crowd.

She credits the Cameron Crazies for that.

It was after UT’s win at Connecticut that Summitt said Hornbuckle officially left the Duke game behind her.

"I think she is playing the best basketball of her career right now," Summitt said. "I think that game last year had to have had an impact on her, but this year she understands how she can really help this team."

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